Demand for new skills within the conservation sector comes with the opportunity for architects to develop their own approach, says Fiona Raley


Fiona Raley

Studio Sam Causer, David Grandorge

For architects, the conservation sector has never been more exciting and diverse in the opportunities it can bring to our work, from exploring new design interventions, reviewing philosophical debates, undertaking research and compiling practical methodologies.

Current attitudes to historic buildings and their conservation reflect a more balanced view of progress than in the past, echoing the young Tancredi’s observation, in Lampedusa’s ‘The Leopard’, that “If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”.There is now recognition that buildings change over time, and new design can be intelligently reconciled with historic repair. The creative aspect of conservation has lost the insecurity of the historicist phase (with a nostalgic imperative to recreate lost assets) and moved beyond the hybrid parody of postmodernism to be defined instead by pragmatism. The evolving conservation philosophy is focussed on securing viability, leading to an acceptance of creative re-use to meet current needs, and allowing buildings to express change in more or less subtle ways.

Studio Sam Causer’s studio in Margate was formerly derelict, and the one-time home of a nineteenth-century lion tamer, Captain Sadlere, and his lion cubs. “The light-touch conservation will take some time”, says the architect. “The modern, non-breathable cement render is so strongly bonded to the bricks in some places it needs time and weather to eventually loosen and allow moisture to properly evaporate”. 

There is a growing trend to present historic assets in an archaeological sense, arresting decay to provide an ‘as found’ response in preference to restoration to an academically defined ideal. Other issues being wrestled with by guardians of our heritage such as the National Trust (and explored in Caitlin DeSilvey’s recent book ‘Curated Decay’) are non-intervention and an acceptance of loss.

Accreditation as a Conservation Architect is a route to retaining standards and skills in the sector. The ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) Guidelines are the basis on which an accredited architect undertakes conservation, and also the basis for the assessment of applications to join the RIBA register. RIBA conservation courses aim to prepare candidates who are unlikely to have had any conservation in their academic training but may already be experienced with projects involving existing buildings and structures.

New lime plaster to the chimney breast is blended around remaining fragments, cut crisply around the hearth voussoirs

Those with long experience of the sector, as well as those who are new to it, are coming to recognise that – as in other areas of the profession – architects will not be practising in the future as they do today. Laser scanning technology in particular has developed rapidly and ‘BIM 4 Heritage’ is now evolving new methods of assessing and recording buildings, although it is currently largely overshadowed by the ‘new-build’ BIM, which has a different imperative.

The ‘BIM 4 Heritage’ initiative is based on 2D and/or 3D geometrical modelling and associated (non-geometrical) information relating to an existing building, using techniques to provide parametric objects. It is already having a positive effect on the working methodologies for the conservation sector, enabling a collaborative process for co-ordinated and structured information management and will eventually lead to 4D (time-based) modelling capabilities.


Patina revealed during Studio Sam Casuer’s studio renovation. “The effect is created by sanding off the modern gloss paint from the lime-plastered walls, leaving a camouflage-pattern showing each of the historic layers of paint, including greens, blues, peaches,and magnolia. The surface is treated with Marseille soap which creates a breathable, invisible seal”.

This parametric approach is providing new opportunities to inform conservation, as a heritage management tool and as an archive and information resource to aid in future investigations and research. It can sometimes avoid invasive investigations and this is a welcome capability.

The conservation sector is also responding to the loss of specialist curatorial experience and expertise in traditional craft skills. Organisations such as COTAC (Council on Training in Architectural Conservation) are developing awareness of the skills shortage, and also seeking to advance the education and training of all those involved in the preservation of the historic environment. A key question is whether schools of architecture can encourage and support this growing trend by enabling students to specialise in conservation from the start of their professional careers.


All of these shifts – in technology, forms of practice, and cultural attitudes – mean that architects in the field must work to define their own positions. Our work at Studio Sam Causer seeks to pursue the narrative of the palimpsest that existing buildings represent. Through an in-depth understanding of their history, significance and condition, their past informs our search for their future viability.

We enjoy working on a wide range of projects, from a feasibility study for Maxwell Fry’s II*-listed Kensal House to assessing the significance of historic farmsteads. Recently, we’ve created our own offices from a derelict cottage that was once home to the lion tamer at Margate’s Dreamland (along with the lion). We relish working in multi-layered historic environments, and understanding the way materials and people behave in changing circumstances, and have developed a particular interest in the conservation of landscape and social structures as well as built fabric.

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